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When West Meets East
October 28, 2009 8:38 PM   Subscribe

Sky Lanterns... Australia has banned them, and those caught selling them could face fines of up to $100,000 for companies and $20,000 for individuals. Sky lanterns are airborne paper lanterns traditionally found in East Asian cultures. They are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material. When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern floats back to the ground. Great YouTube set of videos here.

Tourists and Thais take delight at the sight of a night sky filled with floating lanterns. That's the upside. The downside is less appealing.

When the wind is blowing inland or across Patong Bay,the owners of properties beneath the descending lanterns have made the point that the naked flames could start fires and the burnt-out remnants of hundreds of lanterns are unsightly.

Khun Prathuang said the penalty for lighting a sky lantern within seven kilometres of the airport is between five and 20 years in jail.


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Fireballs were lanterns

The mystery of fire in the sky over Chatham Sunday night has been solved.

They were fire lanterns released during a birthday party, said Allan Stevenson.

He said after leaving the grocery store shortly before 8 p. m. he looked into the sky and saw dozens of floating red objects.

He decided to investigate.

Stevenson said he drove in the direction the objects were coming from and found a house in north Chatham.

"It was a birthday party," he said. "They were singing to somebody when I went by."

He said they released about 100 objects that looked like balloons with candles in the bottom.

"They went out pretty quick when they went up into the sky," Stevenson said. "They were cool from a distance."

Readers who live in north Chatham e-mailed The Chatham Daily News yesterday to report seeing the red "fireballs.
posted by KokuRyu (55 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was in Chiang Mai during Loy Kratong back in 1998....I saw these sky lanterns launched and totally filling the night sky. Many of them had firecrackers attached to them, iirc.

Gotta say, they were beautiful.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:41 PM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


They are beautiful. But Australia has some pretty good reasons for banning them.
posted by Diablevert at 8:47 PM on October 28, 2009


First saw these in Indonesia. Love them. Been meaning to build some for some time now.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:50 PM on October 28, 2009


yknow what else is fun? propane balloons.
light the string, let 'em go...baBOOM!
posted by sexyrobot at 8:51 PM on October 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'll miss sky lanterns. And it sounds like this would by extension ban the home-made hot-air balloons that I learnt to make as a kid in the Scouts, so I'll miss giving my friends' children practical demonstrations of those. But being as I live in one of the driest cities in Australia, and being that Adelaide has its fair share of of idiots just like any other city, this seems like a pretty sensible bushfire prevention measure to me.
posted by MarchHare at 8:52 PM on October 28, 2009


I did this back in the 1970's, though with synthetic petrochemicals polyethylene and hexamine.
posted by Tube at 8:53 PM on October 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's seems like a pretty reasonable decision on the part of Australia.
posted by Caduceus at 8:54 PM on October 28, 2009


Wow, these things are beautiful, and I'd never seen or heard of this before. Thanks for the post, KokuRyu.

It's pretty interesting, this relationship the Chinese have with fireworks and fire. Flirting with danger. I was once in NYC Chinatown during Chinese New Year, and man, it was fuckin frightening, I tell you. The streets were ankle-deep in red paper from exploded firecrackers, and it was pure bedlam: the sidewalks and streets were zones of constant explosions, non-stop. Big strings of firecrackers going off everywhere, like machine guns. I was pretty frightened for my ears, cause I swear, some of those were going off in the air right around my head. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could so as not to suffer any damage to the ol' ear drums.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:55 PM on October 28, 2009


Australia has banned them,

I should bloody hope so, even though I suspect their operation would be a crime covered under existing statutes. (Being dangerously stupid is already crime, right?)
posted by pompomtom at 9:01 PM on October 28, 2009


I was once in NYC Chinatown during Chinese New Year, and man, it was fuckin frightening

hah, you think that's bad? try Chinese new Year in China. Literally (and I mean literally, not figuratively) millions and millions of crackers going off across a couple of hundred square kilometers - cities drowned in deafening noise and blanketed in smoke, for several consecutive days. World War 3 could have come and gone and no-one would have noticed.
posted by moorooka at 9:09 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also banned in Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, etc.

And what's with the Halloween tag? I can see why they'd make for a cool Halloween decoration, but what's that got to do with the post?
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:11 PM on October 28, 2009


Driving fast on public roads used to be fun too.

Some things need to be relegated to the past and stay there.
posted by HTuttle at 9:12 PM on October 28, 2009


pompomtom, if you lit one in NSW on a total fire ban day, you'd probably be liable for a $5,000 fine or up to 12 months, and up to $110,000 or up to 14 years in prison if it started a fire.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:13 PM on October 28, 2009


World War 3 could have come and gone and no-one would have noticed.

Yeah, I've seen some insane video of guys in protective gear and crash helmets and such who go running through what you could only describe as a hellish environment of cherry bombs and firecrackers and all. Incredible.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:13 PM on October 28, 2009


You know what else is fun? Shooting an automatic rifle into the air at a wedding.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:18 PM on October 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


There was some Boy Genius Fights Crime book that I had as a kid where Our Heroes set up a fake UFO panic using a buncha these things. I always thought it was the coolest idea ever.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:23 PM on October 28, 2009


Especially when those unmanned drones are overhead. That's when the real fireworks begin.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:23 PM on October 28, 2009


(that was in answer to ZenMasterThis)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:24 PM on October 28, 2009


Plus it seems like this is only a temporary ban of 18 months.
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:29 PM on October 28, 2009


That's good stuff, Tube. Thanks.
posted by peeedro at 9:33 PM on October 28, 2009


During the cold war in D.C. you could launch one of these with tin foil streamers to get F15s scrambled to your neighborhood.
posted by clarknova at 9:41 PM on October 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


There was some Boy Genius Fights Crime book that I had as a kid where Our Heroes set up a fake UFO panic using a buncha these things.

I had the same book. I'm pretty sure it was one of the Mad Scientists' Club books.
posted by dersins at 10:09 PM on October 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


pompomtom, if you lit one in NSW on a total fire ban day

Okay, so if I sit in Wodonga, when it's a fire ban in NSW, and there's a prevailing Southerly...
posted by pompomtom at 10:13 PM on October 28, 2009


I had a strangely good time in Austria last Christmas Eve sitting up on a ledge above Salzburg, drinking Radler, smoking rollies and watching the neverending stream of sky lanterns going up and slowly fading out. Austria is a somewhat damper country, but they were nothing short of magic.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:14 PM on October 28, 2009


In northern Sweden there is a tradition to celebrate "stugsista" (lit: "cottageending", also known as "lightnight"), which was traditionally the day when you left your summer cottage to go home, and thus burned all your old trash from the summer by the beach and threw a party to use up the last of the food. It's become a holiday now, with people building bonfires and burning torches and candles by the sea on the last weekend in August.

Over the last few years, these types of sky lanterns have become common for this holiday as well, a tradition probably borrowed from Thailand (which is a popular tourist spot for Swedes). My mother says that they can spend weeks afterward picking up the remains. Pretty while it lasts, but don't have a great environmental or social impact. The county where they live has talked about banning them there, too.
posted by gemmy at 11:27 PM on October 28, 2009


Elsewhere, Isaac Newton made... a kite with an enclosed lantern, which fooled the locals into seeing ghosts!

Under the right conditions, you can just light a piece of newspaper on fire and it will float away in the air.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:50 PM on October 28, 2009


I had the same book. I'm pretty sure it was one of the Mad Scientists' Club books.

That's the one! By the time I got my copy in the late 80s, it was like some kind of relic of the Lost Golden Age of Unsupervised Shenannigans, which I think is why the OMG HOMEMADE UFO ON FIRE part stuck in my head like that. I can't for the life of me remember what happens in any of the other stories.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:49 AM on October 29, 2009


Couldn't the lanterns be tethered at the base by fishing line?

They'd float up and when they burn out they'd come back down relatively near their launch point.
posted by bwg at 1:11 AM on October 29, 2009


also banned in hamburg, germany.
posted by krautland at 1:37 AM on October 29, 2009


In the summer here in Jilin, every night there are a few constant streams of them lifting off from various places, especially along the river. It's wonderfully beautiful. They last for about 10 minutes, and you can't usually see them go out because they've gone so far up and away. People write wishes on them before they send them up. It's nice to sit by the river sipping a beer and watching all of the lights go silently through the sky.
posted by strangeguitars at 1:53 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was once in NYC Chinatown during Chinese New Year, and man, it was fuckin frightening


Yensui is fucking frightening. HIGHLY recommended NOTHING can prepare you for literally thousands of rockets shooting at you from all directions and point blank. It's madness.

Youtube does not do it justice
posted by mattoxic at 2:45 AM on October 29, 2009


bwg - you know what, I don't care if they'll probably "come back down relatively near their launch point"... what we really don't need around here is people sending naked fire up into the sky and just hoping it doesn't cause any problems when it comes down again... we're having a drought, our native flora is pretty much *built* for burning, and last summer there were fires into the melbourne 'burbs...
posted by russm at 3:29 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've read about doing this sort of thing using plastic, such as dry-cleaning wrap. One night, here in Switzerland, we saw some strange lit objects going up. They looked like these things, but I was amazed at how fast they rose.

A design improvement might be made such that, at the end of the fuel burn, the entire assembly is burned/exploded, at altitude, such that nothing substantial ever makes it back down. Might make for an interesting finish! Perhaps by impregnating the paper with black powder.

In the video, I was kind of expecting to see a lantern get hit by a firework shell or rocket, but it didn't happen.
posted by Goofyy at 3:43 AM on October 29, 2009


Being dangerously stupid is already crime, right?

Oh, man, if that were true, Australia would be some sort of convict island!
posted by No-sword at 4:29 AM on October 29, 2009 [9 favorites]


I don't think it's a coincidence I first saw those in a Hummer ad.
posted by delmoi at 6:00 AM on October 29, 2009


They are beautiful, and I'd love to see them in action. I read about them, and the fire danger is clear. I live on a lake, so maybe in the rainy season, which, this year, was all summer, I could use them. nice post.
posted by theora55 at 6:27 AM on October 29, 2009


russm, I didn't say I was in favour of burning down half of Oz, I was making a general observation about possibly finding a way to make it work that might be safe, in circumstances where it could work.

But in any drought situation anything involving fire has to be off the table, and so a ban makes total sense.
posted by bwg at 6:28 AM on October 29, 2009


I don't know -- I just don't think those look big enough to hold a six-year-old child.
posted by webmutant at 6:54 AM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


I've always thought they were pretty, but just like the Buddist Toro Nagashi paper lantern ceremony which is stunning too, I've wondered who cleaned up the mess it so obviously leaves.
posted by dabitch at 7:06 AM on October 29, 2009


Long range littering.

sent from my sky lantern
posted by blue_beetle at 7:11 AM on October 29, 2009


try Chinese new Year in China. Literally (and I mean literally, not figuratively) millions and millions of crackers going off across a couple of hundred square kilometers - cities drowned in deafening noise and blanketed in smoke, for several consecutive days. World War 3 could have come and gone and no-one would have noticed.

Dear God, that's my idea of hell. I am very sensitive to noise, especially sudden, loud noise. I can't even go to a fireworks display. One of the nice things about the condo I used to own was its wonderful panoramic view of Toronto. On holiday weekends I used to switch off the lights and sit in my living room watching firecrackers go off all over the city.
posted by orange swan at 7:54 AM on October 29, 2009


I made these in the 60's with dry cleaning bags, straws and birthday candles.
posted by xjudson at 8:00 AM on October 29, 2009


John Woo's new film Red Cliff has a pretty spectacular scene involving sky lanterns. The film in general is full of amazing cinematography but the sky lanterns end up playing a bit of a pivotal role.
posted by dnash at 8:09 AM on October 29, 2009


Just last month I was touristing in Český Krumlov when my partner grabbed me and pointed in the sky and said "what are those lights in the sky?" Pure magic when it's unexpected.

I read the linked stories quickly, but none of them seemed to talk about this ban in the context of Australia's continuing unease with Asian immigrants. Is anyone seeing this locally as a form of racism, or does everyone agree it's a sensible ban on a fire hazard?
posted by Nelson at 8:17 AM on October 29, 2009


Hmm... I wasn't aware that they were banned in Singapore, and so far I can't find any online resource stating this beyond that Malaysian newspaper article and some random blog comments.

I have a pretty sentimental attachment to sky lanterns; I set one off with my girlfriend just before I proposed to her this year. It was a really magical sight to see the lantern fly up into the sky slowly disappear. So I'm feeling kind of sad to read this news.

I do see how they are likely to be fire hazards though, but it seems quite disappointing to ban something so beautiful. There's probably some way to design a safer version. As for littering, the lanterns I purchased are made from bamboo and rice paper, fully biodegradable, so I think that's less of an issue.

I bought my sky lanterns online from some shop in Thailand, and they only sell it in bulk quantities, so now I have 20+ lanterns still sitting in my bedroom. After reading this I'm not really sure what I should do with them.
posted by destrius at 8:38 AM on October 29, 2009


I bought a Sky Lantern last year in London's Science Museum. However, the instructions include so many caveats as to where they should not be used (anywhere close to an airport, dwellings, forests, or a road, for that matter), that they practically rule out all of Western Europe. Since I don't think that I'll be able to board a plane with such flammable material, either in my check-in luggage or (God forbid!) my carry-on, the package has been sitting quite forlorn in my bedroom ever since, to my mounting frustration...
posted by Skeptic at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2009


Lighting things on fire because they are beautiful. The story of our stupidity. Too bad we'll be taking several millions of species with us.
posted by mistersquid at 9:32 AM on October 29, 2009


I saw one of these in Pittsburgh, and as it was floating away, on fire, I thought, wow, what a serious fire hazard. It was pretty though. Very....preeeeetttyyyy.....
posted by elder18 at 10:29 AM on October 29, 2009


This doesn't seem like so much an issue of East meets West as an issue of Wet meets Dry. Those things probably aren't particularly unsafe if you live in or near a rainforest, but in much of Australia, humidity is a wee tad lower.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2009


These things are common at Burning Man too. So far, they haven't started any fires, but they really do wind up being litter out on the playa. (Or as Burners call it, "MOOP.")
posted by drstein at 1:15 PM on October 29, 2009


My cousin used to do these in Brazil. I can testify that they're dangerous. I saw my first one when I was 8 years old, and it was so exciting that I ran inside to tell everyone about it - through a plate glass window.
posted by jewzilla at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is anyone seeing this locally as a form of racism, or does everyone agree it's a sensible ban on a fire hazard?

This doesn't seem like so much an issue of East meets West as an issue of Wet meets Dry.

Vietnam has banned sky lanterns as well, as they're believed to be linked to 20 forest fires this year. Couple that risk with the fact that much of Australia's forest cover is heavy on eucalyptus, which are are fireballs waiting to happen, and I think this (temporary and investigative) ban on devices that send an open flame into the sky probably looks quite practical on the ground. It doesn't seem out of line with existing fire restrictions, and when public fireworks displays on major holidays can be banned when fire danger is high, it doesn't look like its unfairly targeting Asian holiday celebrations, either.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:07 PM on October 29, 2009


Btw, I didn't mean to suggest I think the ban is racist. Sure makes sense to me not to send burning torches flying free over dry eucalyptus stands. I was just curious if there were any sensitivities about it in the Australian media.
posted by Nelson at 10:22 PM on October 29, 2009


Nelson, the point I was going for (which didn't come across so clearly, in retrospect) was that I find it hard to imagine that even the most culturally liberal mainstream Australian media outlets would, at this point, have a strong interest in contesting this, given that "sky fire + exploding trees" naturally seems like a bad combination. If, 18 months from now, a permanent national year-round ban is enacted without much evidence that sky lanterns are any riskier than, say, fireworks (although fireworks are banned or highly restricted where private use is concerned, even beyond fire season), it's not inconceivable that critical commentary might appear in the Age or ABC or smaller, more progressive outlets. But I'm thinking that unless someone discovers that the Vietnamese government was wrong in attributing multiple forest fires to sky lanterns, it probably won't be hard to justify a permanent ban on purely practical grounds. I would be surprised to see much in terms of critique in the mainstream media now, at the start of fire season in southern Australia, especially considering how devastating last year's bushfires were in Victoria.

Given the substantial fear of bushfires, it also wouldn't surprise me to see a total and permanent ban on sky lanterns go into effect with little evidence and little mainstream challenge just because the very idea of "sending burning torches flying free over dry eucalyptus stands" seems so very wrong, regardless of the actual risk. But I think if there is critique happening now, it's probably happening well outside the most widely accessed Australian media outlets. (Comments sections of news sites not withstanding - critical Herald Sun readers seem far more concerned with the "nanny state" than cultural sensitivity, so there is evidence that not everyone agrees that it's a sensible ban on a fire hazard.)

This is all speculation on my part, though, based on having to dig a bit to get that comment page on the Herald Sun, and a strong suspicion that this isn't a measure that's likely to generate a whole lot of public controversy.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:04 AM on October 30, 2009


Huh - one of my favourite books when I was a kid learning to read was Ah Lee And The Lantern.
posted by RockCorpse at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2009


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